Anilay’s thumb hovered over the green call icon. Come on, girl! Tap into your inner succubus and be confident! Be daring! Come on, just call already!
Sadly, her inner succubus seemed to be on vacation in Tahiti.
Anilay huffed. Fifteen minutes, she’d been sitting here. Fifteen minutes of the metal frame of the café chair digging into her rump, her iced coffee sweating in the heat, her panini chilled to lukewarm, and all she had to show for it was a number on the screen and acid churning in her gut.
She considered asking the demon sitting at the next table over to initiate the call for her but, no, she was supposed to be a professional now. Professionals made their own saints-blessed calls. She took a sip of her iced coffee and hit the button.
The line rang.
She shoved her fingers in her other ear to muffle the café noise—the hum of conversation, the tinny violins piped over the speakers overhead, the clinky-clack of cutlery on heavy-duty plastic dishes—and rehearsed the inevitable voicemail she’d need to leave. Hi, I’m Analistaphel, returning your call about the personal demon position—
The line clicked. “Hallward & Associates, Panarygon speaking.” Panarygon’s voice was warm, their annunciation precise, their pitch somewhere between alto and tenor.
Anilay froze. That shouldn’t have gone directly through, should it? Panarygon was a partner, for Satan’s sake! What partner answered their own phone calls?
This is their direct line, idiot.
“Hello?” Did Panarygon sound pissed? Oh, they sounded pissed. Or, at least, confused. More confused than pissed, and if you don’t say something right now, they’re hanging up!
“Hi—uh. Hello? This is Anilay—Analistaphel. I’m returning your call?” Oh, good job, Anilay. Way to fail on specifics. “About the personal demon position?”
“Ah, Analistaphel. Yes.” The sound of rustling paper leaked in over the line. Anilay tapped her fingers on the metal top of the table. Wound her tail around the steel leg of the café chair. Stared out the window at the snaking line to nowhere of damned souls. The line shuffled a step down the sidewalk, weaving around palm trees and steaming sulfuric pits in an endless circle around this little corner of Hell’s suburbs. Very old-school torment, there. From an intellectual standpoint, Anilay could appreciate it, yes, but—saints—it took up a lot of real estate.
“Right, got your resume right here.” More rustles. “Ah. Just out of Perdition, I see.”
She bit her tongue to keep from saying, but that’s okay, isn’t it? The posting said it was an entry-level temp position? Because if she asked, then the rest would all come bubbling out and by the end, she’d be pleading with Panarygon. Which, really, just wouldn’t be professional, would it?
“Is that old saying, ‘I only made it through Perdition because of whiskey and beer’ still a thing?”
A choked guffaw slipped past Anilay’s lips. Oh saints, she hadn’t meant to do that. Bad start, bad start. Had to save it somehow, and fast. “No, not so much. Now they, um, say it was because of coffee.”
“Ah. Yes. I’m more of a tea drinker myself. Can’t start the morning without my cup of Earl Grey.”
Unsure of how to answer that—if there was an answer to that—Anilay picked at her cuticles and waited for Panarygon to continue. “Hm. I see you majored in Self-Doubt and minored in…Self-Flagellation?”
“It’s—” She swallowed back the rest, It’s old-school, I know. Then the Self-Flagellation was the only thing that fit in my schedule excuse right after and she definitely couldn’t go with the truth, Marbus was teaching the intro course and I had a thing as a freshman for tall, dark, and damned. Saints, no, she couldn’t say that out loud.
Embrace it. You minored in Self-Flagellation. Okay, so why—other than for want of eye-candy—did you minor in Self-Flagellation? “I wanted to connect more with our roots—” What was it again that Professor Marbus used to say? “—because it’s through knowing where we’ve been that we can know where we’re going.”
There. That sounded…halfway to intelligent.
“A fair point. It says here you volunteered with the Young Knights of Misery?”
“For two years, yes.”
“What were your duties while you were there?”
Anilay frowned. Hadn’t that been on the resume? “I worked with the Knights’ spawn, introducing them to the more hands-on parts of influencing mortals, mostly in the aftermath of war—death, destruction, rapine, pillaging, and so on, though we’d occasionally dabble in one-on-one murder when a spawn showed a particular aptitude for inspiring it. Oh, and I organized fundraising events and led the yearly mass-haunting in Kansas.”
Panarygon made a soft ‘m-hm,’ their pitch rising at the end in an ‘as I expected’ way. “And your position as a desk clerk at Perdition’s Admission Offices?”
Oh crap, oh saints, oh crap, this was a phone interview. She wouldn’t have called if she’d known this was where it was going to end up. She would have at leastdone a little research. No, scratch that, a lot of research. Saints, she didn’t even have questions prepared! And, oh, bless it, shouldn’t she be wearing a suit?
Don’t be stupid. It’s a phone interview. Panarygon can’t possibly know you’re wearing sweats and a t-shirt!
Although, they could probably hear that she was sitting in a café.
Anilay rattled off her old job description as she snagged her receipt and started scribbling notes on the back. Hallward & Associates, entry-level temp position as personal demon specializing in self-doubt, anxiety, and self-ridicule, with the hopes of being hired on full-time after the six-month trial period. Nowhere near as established as somewhere like Mephistopheles & Co., which had centuries to its name, Hallward & Associates was still a relatively new up-and-comer; becoming a household name, but still small enough to make every torment individualized to the client. She’d squealed over the job description. One-on-one relationships with clients—the kind of specialized intimacy she’d gone into this field looking for—an outstanding reputation—those hired at Hallward tended to land positions at the bigger firms within a century—and opportunities to travel—Hallward had branch offices across most of Earth at this point, along with the main headquarters in Hell. It sounded perfect.
Yet, after squealing, she’d still written it off as “impossible dream-job.”
And then her roommate had got her drunk and together, they submitted the blessed application and may the pearly gates take it.
“—what you’d bring to the company?”
Uh. Um? “I’d bring my experience working one-on-one in the torment and self-torture field, an understanding that’s only been diversified in my studies, and my passion for the job as a personal demon.” It took all her self-control to keep her voice from lilting up in a question. “I’m dedicated and self-motivated, and I don’t like seeing a job half-assed.” Which she should so not have said out loud, oh, saints. “Yet I also think there’s something special about hands-on torment. The kind tailored to the individual and designed to have just the right balance of soul-crushing despair and hopeful agony. Which is why I’d love to work for Hallward & Associates.” What a pathetic end. Wasn’t that a pathetic end? Oh, why couldn’t she have thought of something better? She could think of something better, right?
Except, now there’d been too much of a pause and adding anything would just sound…awkward.
A soft sound, maybe a sigh, maybe just an exhale. “I think you misunderstood my question. I wasn’t asking you why you want to work for Hallward nor hear a recitation of the company’s reputation. So I shall be blunt: I have forty-two applications for this position. Why should I hire you, and only you?”
“I—uh—I—” Anilay’s voice died in a choked whimper. Why her? Wasn’t that the big question? Why her? What made her so special? What made her think she could do this job with finesse and panache and pure artistry of a proper professional personal demon? What was she thinking? She wasn’t qualified for this! She had no experience! Well, some experience, but that didn’t count, not really, and the degree felt more like a primer in retrospect—
Panarygon remained silent. Thank Satan, they didn’t utter the words ‘Take your time’. That would’ve gone poorly. But the way they’d said that, Panarygon expected some serious contemplation and bald honesty, and seemed content to wait.
So why? Why, why, why?
Because every bit of her was made for this job. Because if ever there was a demon with a more intimate familiarity with self-destruction and self-sabotage, Analistaphel was that demon. It was the ideal channel for all of her own nervous energy and neuroses. Her fears, her dread, her absolute terror—of socializing, of going new places, of being outside her comfort zone, of being inside her comfort zone, of failing, of succeeding, of every possible disaster, both rational and not—all were fodder for precision torment. She was, if not an expert, certainly more experienced than a novice.
Yes. Yes, this is what I was meant to do with my life. This is what I’ve wanted—needed—to be doing since I was a spawn.
Right. Now…she just needed to express all that in words. Concise, meaningful words.
Be simple, be direct, be honest.
“Because,” she said, and though a hot, panicky flutter gurgled against the base of her sternum, for once in her life, her voice didn’t shake, didn’t quaver, even sounded confident. Well, mostly. “I’m good at it.”
“And I’m to take your word on that?”
That confidence-thing must’ve been inebriating because a “Hire me and find out for yourself” almost slipped out before she stopped it. Oh, saints, that so wasn’t like her. She took a hasty sip of her coffee and cleared her throat. “You’ve seen my resumé. I have the experience. I’ve been doing this for years, even before I started my degree—” Well, technically, her volunteer work was in teaching others how to torment but surely that counted for something? “—and you’ve seen my transcripts, you’ve seen my scores. This is what I’m good at.”
And yet…it was one thing to describe it, another to actually do it, and why did the doing of it seem so much simpler right now than trying to put it to words?
Because. I am good at this. I have a lifetime of experience to draw on.
Then prove it.
A sort of weird lightness flushed her from toes to fingertips and up through the top of her skull, and her conscious mind seemed to float half a step away from the rest of her. Anilay’s lips peeled back in a grin.
Oh, this was going to be fun.
More paper rustling. “As you already know—” Business-speak for and if you’ve forgotten because you sent out thirty resumes at once, I’m going to remind you. “—Hallward & Associates specializes in the creative and intellectual sector—” And was one of the foremost firms when it came to inflicting woe on artists, writers, musicians, poets, performers, thespians, entrepreneurs, and every variety of creative in between. “—and we make our oath to quality torment paramount. Meaning, if one of our clients turns up with a breakthrough deal, we’d expect you to jump on the opportunity, night or day, on the clock or in your off-time, prepared to metaphysically ride their shoulders, whispering in their ear, or to directly influence through corporeal manifestation—whatever the situation calls for. Destruction waits for no demon. Are you capable of that level of commitment?”
Anilay smothered her immediate yes, of course!, took a deep breath and, with as much uncertainty as she could inject in her voice, said, “I’m…not sure. I mean, that kind of dedication, I mean—wow. Really, wow. I mean—” She pushed a level of breathless awe into her tone. “I mean, to be where you are now, you must be a crazy-level of dedicated. Oh, you must’ve been the top of your class. Although—” She let the hesitation carry the weight of her frown over the line. “—I don’t remember a Panarygon in the department alumni records and that’s such a unique name, you’d think I would’ve remembered it but, eh, that doesn’t matter. What did you study? Had to be Self-Doubt or Chronic Anxiety, maybe with a minor in Imposter Syndrome, you sound like an IS kind of demon.”
“Contracts and Accounting, if you must know.”
“Oh.” She savored the stunned pause, let her lips form an O of surprise. “Oh. Um. That isn’t normal, is it? I mean, I’m sure demons do major in contracts, and I’m sure they go on to do great things—though with crossroads and soul-selling and unholy bargains—but…how ever did you end up at Hallward? Oh, saints, that’s rude, I didn’t mean it like that but, I mean, Hallward is the premier for personal torment of creatives and artists. They handpick almost purely from anxiety and self-doubt schools. How did you—oh, never mind. Clearly, you hold the ideals and mission of the company—”
“Yes, I do, Analistaphel, and I don’t much appreciate your insinuations that I am not qualified for my position—”
“But do you really?”
“Do you really? Believe that? That you hold and exemplify the ideals and mission of Hallward & Associates?”
“Of course I do—”
“But let’s be honest with each other, truly honest. I mean, after today, you’re probably never going to talk to me again—I am so not hired, that’s pretty clear—so, really, what’s the harm in a little heart-to-heart? I mean, really, do you honestly think a contracts major is the best skillset for the job? Surely there’s someone else who’s more deserving of the position? Someone who’s really worked for it? ’Cause, let’s be honest, you deal with paper, not people. You can’t be cut out for this kind of thing. Contract majors become devil’s advocates or go into demonic accounting, not personal torment. I mean, what a waste.” She let that settle in then pitched her voice lower and laced the edges of it with a razor-sharp sneer. “Of everyone’s potential.”
Panarygon’s breath hitched in a tiny hiccup. Then they exhaled, long, slow, and with the barest hint of a chuckle. “Oh, now that’s fine work. Very fine. Very cheeky. You almost had me listening to you for a moment there.” They tutted their tongue against their teeth. “I don’t think anyone’s tried to doubt me into quitting before. Or doubt me into hiring them.” Panarygon hummed. “I assume your answer to my previous question about dedication is a yes?”
Wait, Panarygon wasn’t hanging up after that stunt? Surely that should’ve gotten her blacklisted or, at the very least, her application set on fire…
Snap out of it and answer, girl! “Oh, yes! Of course!”
“Good. Do you have any questions for me? About the benefits package, perhaps? It’s competitive and has a dental plan that I can, personally, attest to being reviled, though really, we will no doubt discuss that later if you survive the trial period.”
Trial period? Benefits package? She hadn’t really thought about benefits; she’d been far more concerned with the possibility of full-time employment and enough of an income to pay both rent and her student loans, but that said… “Is there vacation time?”
“Eighty hours a year.”
Anilay suppressed an appreciative huh! In a few months, maybe she could join her inner succubus and sip martinis on a beach. Always wanted to sit on a beach…well, corporeally. She’d been to beaches in a demonic capacity, but those tended to be littered with corpses.
If the rustle of paper could have a tone of finality to it, this rustle managed. “Would you be available to come in on Tuesday?”
“Ye-es?” No, bless it! Confident! Professional! “Yes! Yes, I most certainly am.”
“Wonderful. HR needs to go over some paperwork with you before things are final. Some contract signing, some blood oaths, a copy of your interplanar passcard, that sort of thing. For all intents and purposes, you can consider this phone call an official offer of employment.”
Anilay silently squealed at the ceiling. I got it! I got it! Unholy hellfire! I got the job!
The line crackled as Panarygon hummed softly. “Mmmmmm, yes, I think we’ll start you off slow and work up from there—ah, I’ve just the one. Robert Torres, forty-two-year-old poet and songwriter. Very much the classic ‘struggling artist’ type with a history of both depression and anxiety and a tendency to surround himself with demanding and judgmental maternal figures, but he’s starting to settle down now that he’s met his wife. Been with us for years. He’s also far enough along in his career that if he gets a whiff of confidence in his own competence, it’s to be expected.” Meaning, if Anilay screwed up, the situation would be salvageable. “Yes, I think he’d be a good match for you. By chance, you wouldn’t happen to have experience working with child prodigies, would you?”
“I did an eighteen-week focus project on Hollywood child stars?”
Panarygon grunted. “Close enough. We’ve a teenage popstar that needs some new negative influence. Drug abuse is so last year.”
“How about body image issues leading to extreme veganism?”
“Ooooh, now that has some potential.” Panarygon’s cheerfully ruthless tone put images in Anilay’s head of them licking their fangs and grinning. She shivered with anticipation. “Welcome aboard, Analistaphel. Looking forward to seeing what you’ve got.”
A Chicago native, R. J. Howell has an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from Stonecoast. Her fiction has been published in Arsenika Issue 6 and Beyond the Stars: Rocking Space, among others. You can find her online at rjhowell.com and at her blog.